Waves of Unrest Spread to Yemen, Shaking a Region
By Anthony Shadid, Nada Bakri and Kareeem Fahim
The New York Times
January 27, 2011
Thousands of protesters on Thursday took to the streets of Yemen, one of the Middle East’s most impoverished countries, and secular and Islamist Egyptian opposition leaders vowed to join large protests expected Friday as calls for change rang across the Arab world.
The Yemeni protests were another moment of tumult in a region whose aging order of American-backed governments appears to be staggering. In a span of just weeks, Tunisia’s government has fallen, Egypt’s appears shaken and countries like Jordan and Yemen are bracing against demands of movements with divergent goals but similar means.
Protests led by young people entered a third day in Egypt, where Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who has become an outspoken opponent of President Hosni Mubarak, returned in hopes of galvanizing the campaign. The Muslim Brotherhood, long Egypt’s largest organized opposition, ended days of official inaction and said it would join the Friday protests, declaring “a day of rage for the Egyptian nation.”
Dr. ElBaradei called on Mr. Mubarak to step down. “He has served the country for 30 years, and it is about time for him to retire,” he told Reuters. “Tomorrow is going to be, I think, a major demonstration all over Egypt and I will be there with them.”
Though a relative calm settled on Cairo, smoke rose over the city of Suez, as sometimes violent protests continued there.
In Yemen, organizers vowed to continue protests on Friday and for weeks to come until the 32-year-old American-backed government of Ali Abdullah Saleh either fell or consented to reforms.
At least visually, the scenes broadcast across the region from Yemen were reminiscent of the events in Egypt and the month of protests that brought down the government in Tunisia. But as they climaxed by midday, they appeared to be carefully organized and mostly peaceful, save for some arrests. Pink — be it in the form of headbands, sashes or banners — was the dominant color; organizers described it as the symbol of the day’s protests.
“To Jidda, oh Ali!” some shouted, in reference to the city in Saudi Arabia where Tunisia’s president fled this month. “The people’s demand is the fall of the government!”
“We are telling them either he delivers real political reforms or we’re going to deliver him out of power,” said Shawki al-Qadi, an opposition lawmaker and organizer of the Yemeni protests. “He’s closed all the doors of hope. The only glimmer is in the streets.”
Unlike in Egypt, the peaceful protests in Yemen were not led by young people, but by the traditional opposition, largely Islamists. And the opposition remained divided over whether to topple the Saleh government or simply push for reforms.
But the potential for strife in the country is difficult to overstate. Yemen is troubled by a rebellion in the north and a struggle for secession in the once independent, Marxist south. In recent years, an affiliate of Al Qaeda has turned parts of the country, a rugged, often lawless region on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, into a refuge beyond the state’s reach. Added to the mix is a remarkably high proportion of armed citizens, some of whom treat Kalashnikovs as a fashion accessory.
“I fear Yemen is going to be ripped apart,” said Mohammed Naji Allaw, coordinator of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedom, which was one of the protests’ organizers. “The situation in Yemen is a lot more dangerous than in any other Arab country. It would be foolish for the regime to ignore our demands.”
He said a phrase often heard these days was that Yemen faced “sawmala” — the Somalization of a country that witnessed a civil war in the mid-1990s.
A portion of Mr. Allaw’s worries sprang from the inability of the opposition to forge a unified message. Some are calling for secession for the south, he said, while others are looking to oust the president. Yet the mainstream, he said, simply wanted Mr. Saleh to agree not to run for another term after 2013 and to guarantee that his son would not succeed him.
“The opposition is afraid of what would happen if the regime falls,” said Khaled Alanesi, who also works with the human rights group in Sana, the capital. “Afraid of the militant groups, Al Qaeda, the tribes and all the arms here.”
The government responded to the protests by sending a large number of security forces into the streets, said Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist in Sana. “Very strict measures, anti-riot forces,” he called them. But the government suggested that it had not deployed large numbers of security forces, keeping them peaceful.
“The Government of the Republic of Yemen strongly respects the democratic right for a peaceful assembly,” Mohammed al-Basha, a Yemeni Embassy spokesman in Washington, said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce that no major clashes or arrests occurred, and police presence was minimal.”
A pro-government rally, in another district of Sana, organized by Mr. Saleh’s party, attracted far fewer demonstrators, Mr. Arrabyee said.
The protests sprang from political divisions that began building in the country last October, when a dialogue collapsed between the opposition and Mr. Saleh, a 64-year-old strongman who has ruled his fractured country for more than three decades and is a crucial ally of the United States in the fight against the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda. Though Mr. Saleh’s term is supposed to end in 2013, proposed amendments to the Constitution could allow him to remain in power for two additional terms of 10 years.
Opposition lawmakers, an eclectic bloc dominated by Islamists, organized protests that swelled into one of the largest demonstrations during Mr. Saleh’s tenure. But unlike the antagonists in Tunisia and Egypt, both sides seemed at least willing to engage in dialogue over demands that are far less radical.
“Political parties are pushing for reforms more than they are pushing to oust the president,” Mr. Alanesi said. “The slogans say to leave, but we actually want change.”
In a televised speech on Sunday night, Mr. Saleh, a wily politician with a firm grasp of the power of patronage, tried to defuse the opposition’s demands. He denied claims that his son would succeed him — as happened in Syria and, some fear, might occur in Egypt. He said he would raise army salaries, a move seemingly intended to ensure soldiers’ loyalty. Mr. Saleh has also cut income taxes in half and ordered price controls.
Yemen’s fragile stability has been of increasing concern to the United States, which has provided $250 million in military aid in the past five years. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a visit to Sana this month, urged Mr. Saleh to establish a new dialogue with the opposition, saying it would help to stabilize the country.
The protests were the latest in a wave of unrest touched off by monthlong demonstrations in Tunisia that led to the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the authoritarian leader who ruled for 23 years and fled two weeks ago. On Thursday, Tunisia unveiled major changes in its interim government in a bid to end the protests.
The antigovernment gatherings in Yemen also followed three days of clashes between protesters and security forces in Egypt.
Dr. ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has sought to refashion himself as pro-democracy campaigner in his homeland, is viewed by some supporters as capable of uniting the country’s fractious opposition and offering an alternative to Mr. Mubarak. Critics view him as an opportunist who has spent too little time in the country to take control of a movement that began without his leadership.
Safwat el-Sherif, secretary general of Egypt’s ruling party, called for restraint from security forces and protesters and raised the possibility of a dialogue with the young people who have powered some of the biggest protests in a generation.
“We are confident of our ability to listen,” he said.
“But democracy has its rules and process,” he added. “The minority does not force its will on the majority.”
Anthony Shadid and Nada Bakri reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Kareem Fahim from Cairo. Liam Stack contributed reporting from Cairo.